In Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel Room, 5-year-old Jack and his Ma spend their days in a small, secured room, held captive by a man named Old Nick. For Jack, life in this room is all he’s ever known, having never seen the outside world through anything other than their TV set. The book was a best-seller, notable for its vivid attention to detail, the heartbreaking intimacy between Jack and his mother, and the deft way it inhabited Jack's perspective. Director Lenny Abrahamson (What Richard Did, Frank) adapted it for the screen. (Donoghue wrote the screenplay.)
Room premiered in September at the Telluride Film Festival and has been picking up awards season momentum at screenings over the past few weeks, especially for stars Brie Larson and 9-year-old Jacob Tremblay. The film opens in limited release on Oct. 16. I spoke with Abrahamson about why he loved the book, how he transferred Jack’s perspective from the page to the screen, and his thoughts on whether or not Room could work for TV.
For fans of the book, one of the biggest concerns seems to be whether or not Jack’s perspective gets maintained in the translation to the screen. Did you ever think about giving the film a more neutral point of view?
The novel is so much from the boy’s perspective in the way that literature is always so much from somebody’s perspective because you’re in a voice already. If I take a shot of this place, there’s an implied perspective, but it’s very neutral. It’s not as [weighted] with meaning as the narrator’s voice in a novel. And so I think that the issue wasn’t so much whether we would move away from it. I knew that we would be in a slightly different sort of space. My question was: How do we preserve the sense of the boy at the center of the film? ’Cause I think that’s absolutely essential in this to make it work. It’s what makes the story so uplifting. It’s what makes it not really about the misery; it makes it about something else.
How do you keep that, given that in a film adaptation, we’re going to be much more objective than we are in a book? ’Cause that little boy is telling you everything he describes he describes from his point of view. Whereas when you shoot it, it’s really there. So when he describes the room, he can talk about it as a really great place. And you may know from the description that it’s pretty grimy, but it’s still in his description. As soon as you look at it with a camera, you’re looking at it. So I think the question for me was, how do you preserve the boy’s point of view, but without resorting to some silly tricks or animating some sequences or finding some other plastic way of trying to copy what the book does? …
We do shift very subtlety sometimes into the mother’s world and then back into his. And one of the things Emma says—and I think it’s true—is that what the film has that the book doesn’t is much more of the mother, much more of her presence. And that’s great because the character is so interesting.
There’s Jack’s voiceover narration in the film, of course. Were there any other cinematic techniques you used to give a sense that we were seeing this from his perspective that might not be as obvious to the average viewer?
There were no special lenses or grading techniques, because I think all of those would’ve been a crude attempt to say, Hey when it’s Jack we’re going to look at it like this … What you’re doing is you’re modulating all of the techniques that you use all the time within a scene to suddenly shift point of view, to experience it more with one character than with another. So what we would do, for example, is, on occasion, we would play with direct point of view. For example, when they come out and when he’s in the cop car, that’s shot in a way which uses lots of overlapping handheld [tricks], just slightly off framing, and longer lenses … which just slightly de-naturalized what we’re all familiar with. So when he’s looking at the cop, he’s really fascinated by the badge on her hat. And I think what kids experience generally is a bit like this. The reason why kids are so hard to teach is because their little brains are just grabbing things all over the place that they find interesting …
And so sometimes we allowed ourselves to drift more into the subjective with Jack. We also play with, during the escape sequence, a different shutter angle in the camera which gives the images slightly hyper-real quality. It’s very subtle but it’s there. So there are some techniques, but we try to make them as subtle as possible so it doesn’t just go: Hey! Now we’re in the boy’s world.
I felt that way– or rather, I didn’t feel it, which is, I think exactly what you mean—
It wasn’t overwhelming or in your face.
Exactly. Does the room resemble what you first envisioned when you were reading the book?
It’s funny because it’s so [descriptive] in the book—that’s his whole world. I knew there were corked tiles, I knew there was a wardrobe, I knew there were all these things. But nothing can fully describe [it] until you start really asking: What’s the wardrobe made of, and how do the doors open, and what color is it, and is it a modern one or an old one? And I I tend to have a fluid visualization of things when I read. With faces, I don’t have an absolute face in mind for a particular character when I read a novel … Instead we really explored it for quite awhile—it is true to everything that Emma wrote in the novel, but it also has loads more that wasn’t specified. So we went for a mixture of older and more modern pieces. We talked about where Old Nick bought this stuff … we had a story for every item of furniture in that place, whether it was a piece of furniture that was left over in his house from his mom, [or] the table itself … is a piece of garden furniture, which gives it this flimsy, shitty quality. We also added some very strong colored notes to the place so that it wouldn’t be that really obvious thing of, hey lets make everything grey because it’s supposed to be depressing. No, we actually wanted everything in the room to be fairly warm and cozy when Old Nick wasn’t there—something that in a weird way you might weirdly like to go back to.
At the Toronto International Film Festival, Emma mentioned that you helped her adapt the script from her book, and that sometimes your notes would for her would read: “Too TV.” What did you mean by that? And would you have been as excited to work on this if it were, say, a miniseries rather than a movie?
I am actually [developing some TV ideas with a producer I work very closely with] now. And I’m looking at [directing some pilots], because I’m fascinated with TV at the really high end and what’s happening in the states with TV at the moment. And there are a couple of novels that are absolutely really perfect for a series, right? I don’t think Room is one of those. I think Room is such an emotionally complete experience when you read it. I know that half of it takes place in a small room, but it’s ultimately totally cinematic to me. It never would’ve occurred to me to turn it into television.
And when I say “too TV” I’m meaning TV in the slightly old-fashioned sense of TV because I think some contemporary TV is amazing. What I mean is every scene has a dramatic point in television. Every emotion has to be—this is like, dial the clock back a bit 10 years ago—it’s usually over-dramatic, and people tell you what they feel way too cleanly. So when I said to her to it’s “too TV,” it was my shorthand for saying, “Write long and open scenes that feel sometimes like you’re looking at a wildlife documentary. Watch these people and record what they say to each other, because that’s the sort of material that I can take and shape into something.” Whereas if each scene opens, and it has a key moment where one actor says something meaningful to another, then that’s not the way life is. And that’s not how I wanted to shape this drama.
It does seem like it would be very difficult to take that premise and draw it out for many episodes.
You know, now that you say it, because I haven’t really thought about it—if you imagine the very highest-end [TV] like HBO, sort of 4 parts—
Like Olive Kitteridge …
Yes, indeed. I think you could, and it would be very different and … you could explore different things. I think what you would explore [with Room] is media, in a really extended way. You’d explore the challenges of going to school for Jack, and you’d go off into different storylines and how he relates to other kids, but you would expand it. Yeah, interesting you know. Maybe [as] a musical, what do you think?
It’d be a very sad, powerful musical. I would watch it.
It would, it would. It would be an opera, I think.